Family Tradition: Marcus Theatres celebrates 80 years of achievement

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Cinemas Features

The saga of Marcus Theatres and its parent company, The Marcus Corporation, is the quintessential American immigrant success story. It’s the tale of Ben Marcus, who emigrated from Poland in 1925 at the age of 14 (11 years after his father Samuel had arrived and settled in Minnesota), and within a decade opened a movie theatre that would become the foundation for a 681-screen circuit and a corporation encompassing restaurants and hotels. This remarkable achievement, and the three generations of Marcuses who made it happen, will be saluted at ShowEast 2015 with the annual Show “E” Award honoring extraordinary accomplishments and dedication to the cinema business.

The original guiding spirit, Ben Marcus, completed high school in a year and a half, studied accounting at the University of Minnesota, and soon found a full-time job in the advertising department of the Minneapolis Journal. His work at the entertainment section led him to become a de facto marketing advisor to theatre owners, which spurred him to find and open his own movie theatre. That first location was a struggling department store in Ripon, Wisconsin, which he bought for $15,000 and transformed into the Campus Theatre. With his belief that “if I gave [the town] a better theatre—better equipped, better run, and with good pictures—then I’d be able to do some business,” the Campus was an immediate success.

By 1941, Ben Marcus had acquired theatres in Tomah, Sparta, Reedsburg, Oshkosh, Neenah and Appleton, Wisconsin. In 1940, he made his big-city debut with the Tosa Theatre in suburban Milwaukee. To help manage his growing circuit, Marcus recruited two veteran executives from the Fox theatre chain, Joe Strother as film buyer and Henry Tollette as operations manager.

The boldness of Ben Marcus was demonstrated in the 1950s, when he expanded the circuit despite the fearsome competition from that new medium called television: By 1958, he had 36 locations.

That year, Marcus also embarked on a new business, opening the first Marc’s Big Boy hamburger restaurant in Milwaukee; by 1970, the brand had grown to 22 locations. Marcus was also an early partner with Kentucky Fried Chicken, first as a menu item in the Big Boy restaurants and later in separate KFC locations numbering as high as 21.

In 1960, Ben Marcus entered the motel business, followed quickly by the purchase of the historic Pfister Hotel in downtown Milwaukee; the building’s renovation and expansion were overseen by a new member of the Marcus team, Ben’s son Steve. Today, the Marcus Hotels and Resorts division owns or manages 19 hotels and resorts in California, Florida, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, Texas and Wisconsin. The Marcus Corporation, uniting all the businesses, launched with an initial public offering in 1972.

In 1983, with the multiplex era now in full swing, Bruce Olson took over the theatre division and oversaw a dramatic expansion program. After more than 50 years at the helm, Ben Marcus stepped down as CEO of The Marcus Corporation in 1988, succeeded by Steve. (Ben died in 2000 at the age of 89.)

A third generation entered the picture in 1992, when Steve’s oldest son Greg joined the family business, overseeing real estate matters (including locations for Applebee’s restaurants, a new venture following the gradual selloff of struggling Big Boy properties). Greg rose to president of The Marcus Corporation in 2008, and then CEO in 2009.

Marcus Theatres opened its first location outside Wisconsin in 1993 in Gurnee, Illinois, and expanded into Minnesota and Ohio in 1998. The circuit grew even larger with the acquisitions of 11 theatres from Cinema Entertainment Corporation in 2007 and Douglas Theatres in Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska in 2008. A milestone for the circuit was the 2007 opening of the Majestic Cinema in Brookfield, Wisconsin, an “entertainment destination” featuring 16 screens (including two premium UltraScreens and a Palladium screen offering cabaret seating, a full dinner menu and drinks), a pizzeria, a cocktail lounge, and an ice cream and coffee shop.

With the appointment of former AMC and Rave executive Rolando Rodriguez (replacing Bruce Olson) as president and CEO of Marcus Theatres in August 2013, yet another major era of expansion and heightened amenities was about to begin for this venerable circuit, detailed here. But first we focus on two of the three generations within the Marcus family who’ve guided America’s fifth-largest theatre circuit through many decades of ongoing success.